The group Vietnam Veterans of America is criticizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over its slow response to concerns from Air Force reservists who may have been exposed to Agent Orange in the 1970s.
The organization has joined the chorus demanding answers for about 2,000 people who crewed C-123s, the clunky cargo planes that were used to spray Agent Orange, after those planes came back from the war.
A study released by the VA in January confirmed previous findings that these vets could have been exposed to Agent Orange at dangerous levels while they were flying and maintaining the planes on bases in Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania from 1971-1982. The Air Force knew as early as the 1990s that the planes still had some Agent Orange residues on them. Agent Orange, a defoliant, contains dioxin, which can be very toxic if humans are exposed in high enough amounts or over sustained periods.
But today, almost all of the C-123 vets who are sick with diseases that can be related to Agent Orange have had their VA claims denied.
A group led by Major Wes Carter, a C-123 vet who is himself quite sick with potentially related conditions, has been calling for the VA to include these reserve veterans in what’s called presumptive benefits. Vietnam vets who had boots on the ground are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, removing the burden of proof from the vets if they apply for benefits.
More than three weeks ago now, VA Secretary Robert McDonald told senators an announcement would be coming within the week on the issue, responding in part to WYSO’s NPR report about C-123 veterans. Now that announcement has been pushed back to an unknown date—which Barbara Carson says is disappointing. She’s appealed her claim for benefits after her husband, a former reservist, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“They’ve denied this for years, and they can’t deny it anymore,” Carson says. “They’ve got to admit to it.”
The Vietnam Veterans of America have now joined with the reservists and families calling for a more aggressive response from the VA, issuing a press release on Sunday that accused the VA of taking a “delay, deny, until they die” approach to these vets.
In an email, a VA spokesperson said “in order to better inform and serve our Veterans, the Department is examining policy and legislative issues in order to proceed with its final proposal.”
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.